Learn Squared Term 2 – Big Notes and Insights From All Courses With Jingna Zhang, Maciej Kuciara, Jama Jurabaev and Ash Thorp – All 8 Weeks

Why Going Down the Wrong Path Is The Right Thing To Do
January 10, 2016
Art & Life Lessons From Shaddy Safadi – One Pixel Brush
June 15, 2016

Term 2 for Learn Squared has started, I’m sure a lot of people are curious about the courses or are wondering which ones to take. I’m taking all 4 courses again and sharing the notes so even if you can’t afford to sign up – you can still benefit from learning from some of the top people in the industry. Hope you find these helpful!

Just a note here to say that I’m not affiliated in any way, nor are these endorsed by the instructors, I’m just a happy student sharing some thoughts while learning from these amazing people.

You can find my notes from Term 1 Here



Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 1 – Foundations

All the Tools You’ll Need – This entire lesson is about foundations, all the different types of knowledge you’ll require in order to be able to begin producing sketches and interpreting references. From researching the subject matter, to arming you with basic software knowledge, to then giving you the tool of perspective and demonstrating how everything works together, Maciej has really thought the structure of the lesson out.

The introduction of modular homework, I think, is a stroke of genius, you can challenge yourself to your limits and even revisit and redo the course and do it on a harder level… with better boss drops. It’s the Diablo of courses… 🙂

Fundamentals, One Way or Round Trip – Maciej also points out that going to fundamentals is not only the task of the novice. Seasoned pros could also benefit from revisiting and ironing out some kinks that may have accumulated through disuse or bad habits picked up from the use of various techniques. I find myself spending a few months every year, ironing out perspective just a bit more, tweaking my values, then going a step further and noticing something that was just out of reach before, that I can finally try for. This is an invaluable technique for growth.

The Value of Foundation – I think everyone recognizes the value of having a good foundation. What’s harder in my mind though is knowing how deep you have to go. Sometimes you go way too in-depth, then you realize that you’ve wasted time on technicalities. Other times, to compensate for wasted time, you might go way too shallow and gloss over something that’s really not done yet. It’s great to be able to see Maciej go over what’s important, then demonstrate how it’s used. I’ve always liked architecture, geology, creatures, characters, pretty much any subject matter. But I tend to often get stuck in research mode, I’ll get 10 books on architecture and end up looking at joints in woodworking and when to use which one… when in fact I should be practising sketching or attempting to interpret a design. Seeing Maciej being able to begin working with only essential information is very eye opening – you realize just how little you need to get started and obviously you supplement along the way, the same cycle as with the fundamentals above. Awesome stuff.

Always Go For 105% – The difference between good and great is about 5-6%, going from 99% to 105% is what makes an image go from ok to awesome. Maciej always emphasizes going a step further. If you’ve taken his previous course – you’ll already know the immense grasp this man has of subject matter, tools, technique and fundamentals. Maciej does not skimp on the effort, that is more than clear. And it shows in his work. I always remind myself that he is self-taught and he still made it to the top. Regardless of any limitations, you can always go for that extra 5%. Do that over and over and you get what Darren Hardy calls the Compound Effect. This concept has the power to transform your life. Use it.

Thank you Maciej!

Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 1 – Analyzing Titles

Foundation – If you’ve read my previous notes on the first term, you’ll know that I like looking for similarities and patterns in what the instructors teach. If enough people, with tons of skill, repeat the same idea – it’s definitely worth paying attention. With Ash’s course the first thing we look at is the history of title design. How they’ve evolved, what they’ve started as and what they’ve turned into. It’s very illuminating to see how everything begins as a straightforward, stiff idea, then morphs into something very different, organic and far removed from its predecessor, although still related in function. I always think of this as what progress in art looks like. We all start very stiff and limited, but then there’s no limit on improvement and no linear path. Maciej and Ash both emphasize the importance of foundation, of researching your subject matter, analyzing it, to be able to best express what is most relevant to it in your work.

Deep Analysis – Ash’s analysis of titles was an absolute treat for me. I love the in-depth deconstruction of how and why certain things work, why certain choices were made. It brought me back to university and digging in deep to find symbols and meaning in everything. And with an art that communicates purely through sound and visuals, there is a lot of room for creating meaning and interpretation. I think we often forget to dig deep though. There are so many pressures on so many fronts, trying to improve in so many different areas, that thought and spending time on something to really understand it becomes something that’s almost never done. I’ve definitely been very surface oriented in the past few years, just trying to get skills under my belt and trying to make things look good. It was really great and eye opening to take the time and go through Ash’s meticulous analysis of several titles to remind myself of how much more meaning there is everywhere, if we’re just willing to take the time to investigate deeply. It’s definitely inspired me to revisit some of my old books on film studies.

Why Take Ash’s Course –  I’ve 0 experience with motion graphics or titles, I’ve been working on concept art and illustration for the past few years. So why take Ash’s courses if the subject matter is completely different to what I normally would study? Purely for the creativity he displays in how he approaches his work. In other words – the subject could be anything and you don’t have to want to make titles to benefit from this man’s teaching. I would watch him make a sandwich and I’m sure I’d learn more than most of the things I got from university… and it would be a sandwich that’s incredibly beautiful, designed to the very last crumb, baked in several toasters and ovens just to the right degree and garnished with precisely what would be best for the sandwich… and of course it would contain some sort of secret to the universe, most likely in the lettuce area.

Ash’s combination of software and his methods of using it are completely unique, at least in my mind, taking his last course was definitely a mindblowing experience, I’ve no doubt there’s more of that to come. There’s creativity in the design and also in the execution, the whole entire process is a fluid, creative experience, I’d describe it as though seeing music being made. So, that’s why I take Ash’s courses 🙂

Thank you Ash!

Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 1 – Design Principles

The Jama – I’m a huge Jama fan. I’ve seen probably everything that’s out there that Jama’s done – courses, podcasts, even some interviews in Russian, which I don’t really understand… 🙂  Jama is another self-taught artist and his story is incredibly inspiring. His compassionate nature, to want to share his knowledge, because he had to go the hard route and learn on his own, is also very admirable. And just listening to him, I get the feeling that he’s made so much effort to make everything very simple and digestible, so you can walk away with something no matter what your skill level. And there’s also what I call The Jama Effect, which is the feeling I get before every lecture, wondering what mindblowing new technique Jama will have come up with, so far – there’s always been one. And no exception with the new course. Really happy to be studying with Jama again.

Principles over Techniques – I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this in last term’s notes somewhere, this is definitely one of the themes that go across all the courses and should be taken into consideration. I definitely am guilty of liking to spend more time on tools than on principles. Principles transcend media, doesn’t matter what you work on or what your tools are – understanding the principles of what you’re doing means you can get the job done, with the fanciest or most limited toolkit. Having fancy tools and no principles could be used to make very fancy rubbish. This is my area of expertise. Trying to make overcomplicated things that don’t look very good and won’t work… and compensate for all of that by really polishing it a lot… and I mean a lot. This should be tattooed on every art brain out there – hunt down the fundamentals, dissect everything you do and extract out what translates across the board. Then spend 80% of your time there. And of course, don’t neglect your tools or your practice. It’s always a balance.

Simplicity – A big portion of the first lecture is dedicated to simplicity. We could all probably use some help in that department. There’s always something new and complicated out there that needs mastering. I definitely fall into the trap of trying to compensate for lack of skill with fancy techniques. Trying to go into 3D immediately for instance, rather than first testing out simple ideas, to see if there’s even anything to be explored, rather than spending hours pushing polygons around, only to find that the concept isn’t really feasible or appropriate. Back to the drawing board… Jama’s approach, obviously, is the other way around. And this could be taken as a general philosophy. Having taken his previous class, I can see a pattern of trying to simplify your tools, getting the most value out of each and every action, keeping everything manageable and story driven. All very, very valuable ideas to keep you on track and to not fall in the swamp of tools and techniques.

Design Elements – This was really great to see. Everyone can read up more about these, but as always Jama has a unique spin on things. It was very illuminating seeing how surgically he separates one concept from the other, defines the function, then applies them one on top of the other to layer meaning. What I would do with Shape, Form, Texture, Color and Spacing is to desparately try to fit them all in my design somehow and hope that that’s all that’s needed… Jama takes each and everyone, explains it, shows its function and layers it together with the others to create meaning. Definitely huge takeaways for me there. It would also be great to see examples of more of the Gestalt principles – such as how to create harmony, how shapes go together, how to make a cohesive design language, to me these are the biggest challenges at the moment.

Be Unclear – Another awesome strategy to feed your mind, simplify and let design take over is to use abstraction. And this is where The Jama Effect is too for the lesson. Combining simple brushes with layer styles to get an illusion of light direction, then distorting it to form planes and tricking your brain into seeing dimension, then looking for a story… pure genius. I don’t know if Jama was coming up with this stuff during his 6.5 years of aerospace engineering, I really can’t understand how he could invent so many different, unique ideas and go so deeply into researching all his tools, while obviously giving priority to the principles. Having taken his other course, gumroads and stalked him online for quite some time – I can say there are dozens upon dozens of these crazy little techniques. Absolutely awesome. Scott Robertson has also talked about using abstraction for environments, he’s done a DVD on his techniques and also has talks about how he uses wall-scapes, which is taking a camera, pointing it up a wall and taking the shot vertically. So you’re essentially looking up the wall. The texture becomes foreshortened, so your brain sees space and you get all kinds of weird things on the walls that look like objects. Crazy, awesome stuff.

Thank you Jama!

Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 1 – Photography Basics

Fundamentals – Another first week dedicated to the very basics, if you haven’t gotten the message yet – fundamentals are a must 🙂 Jingna walks you through pretty much everything you need to know if you’ve never used a camera before, from the tools, settings and composition elements, to the full kit of what you’ll be needing. Very short, clear chapters, it definitely shows that Jingna, like Jama is predominantly focused on the process and the story, not necessarily on the tool. This is another mistake I’ve made in the past… By the end of the first week, with some practice and experimentation you’ll be able to have working knowledge of DSLRs and pretty much understand the variables involved with no light.

Jingna’s Work – I wasn’t familiar with Jingna before taking the course, her images are absolutely stunning. Especially her latest images, from her personal Motherland Chronicles series, have a very painterly look. Incredibly well orchestrated and arranged, perfectly posed and lit, amazing subtle color palettes and story driven images, each has the feel of a master painting and in fact would make great subject matter for master studies. Very, very inspiring and so much to learn just from the images themselves.

Why Take Jingna’s Course – Like with Ash’s course – it’s not the medium that I think is paramount, so just because I don’t necessarily do photography, even though I have played with it in the past, taking Jingna’s course for illustration or concept art I think would be a great idea, since I could apply what I learn about the way she works to other media. Lighting would translate into rendering or painting, composition obviously translates directly to any visual field, her choice of model and styling would be a great asset for character design and how she thinks about storytelling, so again, another example of learning that necessarily doesn’t translate directly, but can be appropriated and I believe will expand my way of thinking and understanding images greatly. Very excited about the upcoming weeks 🙂

Thank you Jingna!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 2 – Storytelling and Composition

Simplicity Requires Mastery – A pattern that I’ve noticed for this week is that the more experienced people get, the more they seem to pull back to simplicity. And this got me thinking what is required to achieve something simple. It sounds ridiculous that simplicity would require effort. The whole point of simplicity is that it should be easy. And this is why seasoned professionals choose to work in simple terms. But… These people have the confidence and knowledge to pull that thing off. They can focus on ideas, because they know how to execute. And to me this is key. I’ve been wondering why I always tend to overcomplicate, why I always lack clarity, and it’s because there are simply so many things that I don’t know. I seek complexity because in most images that is interpreted as realism,  so I seek out tools that would give me the ability to generate that. Then I normally end up with a cluttered image. I neglected to first think about the critical, simple ideas that make for the scaffolding of everything else to come.

Working with simplicity is the luxury of the master. Once you know you can get the job done and you have all your tools polished, oiled and ready to go – it becomes simpler to think about simplicity. You can drop some of the heavy gear that you normally carry around, figure out a solid plan,  then set out to augment that simplicity with complexity. So what I’m trying to say here is that simplicity is deceptive. It truly is the ultimate tool. But it is often found at the end of a very overcomplicated process, in which you discover, test and solidify your knowledge and tools. Then you discard what is not necessary and you only work with what’s essential. Simplicity provides clarity, it allows you to test many iterations at pretty much 0 cost, but I do believe that it can’t help but be overlooked by beginners and its true utility can only be found after a certain level of experience. As a beginner I couldn’t accept a simple sketch as a tool, because I would lack the knowledge to finish it, so it would be a failure in a way. This perspective needs to shift with experience. The simpler the tools and the means to work – the more you can focus on ideas and exploration.

Have Impact – In this week’s lecture Jama goes over design principles, the many ways that you can organize information in order to maximize its content. I’m not going to be describing them here word for word, I wanted to find some sort of unifying principle for these to chunk them together. You can get lost with all of the concepts out there, Jama does a great job in simplifying once again, this time with the subject matter, instead of giving an academic definition of every single concept – he covers what’s essential and usable, then shows you how to use it. Simplicity at its best 🙂

I would say that the main idea to good design could be summarized as finding ways to deliver impact. Contrast for instance is one of the most frequently used concepts, it goes across all visual communication, from shapes to values, to color, to lighting. The main function of contrast is to deliver impact, it separates one thing from everything else. A design or composition needs to have complex detail areas and places of rest. A large shape is made to feel even larger by a small shape next to it. It’s finding ways to maximize the impact of each and every element. Combine this with repetition, now we can have many small shapes and a large shape. We’re providing more contrast and more impact, by clarifying just how much the large shape differs from the rest. So all design principles reinforce each other and all aim to deliver the most impactful possible solution. In fact, I’ve explained this whole concept in reverse. The goal is to deliver impact, the design principles are the means to do so. I think we often get so bogged down in understanding how things work that we forget the big picture. The story, the idea, the function – these are always paramount.

Simplify Your Learning – Returning to simplicity one more time this week, this is a concept that’s not only art or design related, it can be transplanted onto anything in life. The simpler you keep your practice, the more likely that you’ll stick to it. The more variables you introduce, the harder it is to make a decision.

I was listening to a Craig Mullins class yesterday, he advised people to spend a lot of time in the sketching phase so they could track how this stage impacts the work later on. Jama’s method of using abstract compositions, keeping your values down to just white and black and testing out different layouts, I can’t help but think that this is probably one of the best ways to learn about design quickly. You can analyze and observe hundreds of rules and if you attempt to do complicated studies of them you’ll never be able to get enough mileage to ingrain these in your brain. Simple layouts, quick tests, 1-2 values and you can very quickly get through hundreds of these and develop your intuition for what works and what doesn’t. Awesome stuff.

Thank you Jama!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 2 – Typography

Evolution of Type Based on Design – I just finished my notes on Jama’s course and looking at the history of type that Ash presents in his lecture, it was a noticeable shift of how type evolved. More and more of the design principles we discussed with Jama are finding their way into all different realms of visual communication to take them from primitive to modern. The typefaces in particular show a very clear contrast shift, the strokes becoming of variable widths with thick and very thin segments. Later on with the development of sans serif fonts and a more utilitarian world view, the strokes became uniform, the graceful transition of forms eliminated. The aim to emulate writing tools, such as a calligraphy pen gets replaced with the visual language of new tools – such as computers.  And you could say that this is an elimination of contrast, but it’s actually contrast again on a broader level, instead of contrast per letter, this is now contrast of typeface to typeface. So, what I’m trying to say here is that contrast and repetition and all these concepts exist all the time, on a micro or macro level, they are always in operation and if we look hard enough, they can always be found, simply because this is how we perceive the world, through contrasts that are the main events and repetition, which is most of the time.

Ash’s Workflow – I noticed in the first term that Ash has a very fluid, unique workflow, so I thought I’d take some time to describe what I see. His canvas size is huge and there are many, many versions of the work laid out, but it’s not chaotic. I’d call it creative with constraints. And this is something, again, that can be used as an overall principle, not just as a specific tool. I think most of us get lost in complexities, I definitely do. Thinking what could support the story or what if I moved this or that, what if I took this out or brought something new in, there are always so many options and so much variety, fighting back chaos and getting disorganized become the  two main priorities.

Ash does explore a variety of options, but there are areas and rules to what he does. Initial type treatment is at the top, this is the first stage of the type audition. Once that gets selected, the next area separated with a black rule to make it distinct is working on initial layout, versions of the selected typefaces, then these get moved to a new area to adjust spacing, then they go to a new area to test type modifications etc. etc. What becomes apparent here is that he’s working on one problem at a time. He’s not trying to solve everything at stage one and is building upon the progress of previous decisions, rather than constantly going back and making changes that affect all other decisions that have been made, thus altering the entire work and losing the majority of it.

This is absolutely crucial. It’s something that can benefit your work regardless of what you do. It’s a way of thinking, not just a way of making art. We are all impulsive, doubt our decisions and constantly regress and fight the progress we’ve made because there may be a better way. Ash seems to set clear boundaries, work methodically and make consistent progress because of that, he handles the overwhelm of information. At the same time this discipline allows him to be creative and free, as I’ve seen from his previous course that he takes in tons of information and inspiration in from many different sources, but he has a disciplined way of processing it. I think this, by itself, is one of the most powerful concepts you can adopt as an artist or as a person. As Jocko Willink says, discipline equals freedom, and this is coming from a former navy seal. Obviously nothing to do with art, everything to do with thinking and applying constraints in order to be able to advance. I’m repeating this now, probably more than I have to, but I found it crucial, as this is a mistake that I need to correct and I know that it will have huge implications for any type of work that I do.

Thank you Ash!


Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 2 – Composition

Kick Your Own Butt – I love Maciej’s takeaway videos. His hard won knowledge is always very much appreciated, not just in art terms, but what it takes to improve. This is something that we are all seriously lacking in. School doesn’t put you through nearly enough of a challenge to get you to even remotely understand what’s required of you to improve. Having been through university – I can say the same thing for that too. Handing in a few essays with generous deadlines in between, has nothing on being responsible for your own self-improvement and actively pursuing a long term goal with no clear path, which has huge implications for your general quality of life… There is no comparison.

We are all masters of self-delusion. We practice it daily. From skipping workouts to sleeping in, shoving donuts down our faces and letting ourselves off the hook for nearly anything, this happens to all of us, constantly. One simple truth about your brain is that it has to make you overconfident. You have to find security in yourself. If you’re constantly fearful and if you devalue your own skills – you’re in serious trouble, in a harsh and unforgiving world – you just wouldn’t be able to survive. So, your self image is often false. I find that any single time I’ve ever felt satisfied with what I’ve accomplished, within 1-2 days I’d find that there are more things wrong with it than right. I don’t mean that you should never celebrate a victory, that you should never pat yourself on the back, but maybe the standard for when you do that should be elevated. Maybe not every single study should be celebrated and not every piece should be treated as a masterpiece. Maciej’s advice is a call to reality, one which most would prefer not to face, myself included. No one likes to find out that they’re wrong, no one likes the feeling of insecurity provoked by lack of skill. If you don’t have mastery – you can’t contribute. And if you can’t contribute you can’t receive support from the community. In the harshest terms of nature – this would mean death. So it’s no wonder that it feels uncomfortable.

But, in modern times, and with all the people willing to help an support almost anything, the rules are different. Don’t trust your lying brain. Don’t become overconfident. Return to basics constantly. Never be satisfied. Never feel like you’ve done your best work that will never be matched. Revisit and iron out the gaps in your knowledge constantly, they will always be there, simply because there are many things yet undiscovered and not done. So you can never be at 100%. There will always be more. Stay humble, stay hungry and enjoy the process.

Am I participating in this as well, even though I can talk about it and am seemingly aware of it? 100%. While I’m writing this I could be practicing instead. My very writing could be an act of delusion and protecting my ego by not working on my weaknesses and choosing to do something that I feel more secure with. You can never know for certain... but you can always compensate for lack of knowledge with more effort. Be vigilant and dissect your own thinking. As an artist – you are always self-taught, regardless of any schooling you may have had. So it’s 100% on you to navigate your path, no one else is responsible.

Thank you Maciej, for the constant art butt-kicking you dish out.

Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 2 – Equipment and Lighting

Don’t Mask Your Weakness – Another awesome takeaway this week and also a commonality in all the lectures so far – simplicity, focused work, finding weakness and gaps in knowledge and working on these until they are resolved. It’s not about compensating with over the top tricks, gimmicks and attempting to make things seem more complex than they are. This is a strategy that I think all of us are familiar with. Especially as beginners. It’s tempting to want to mask weakness with flash, to explain to people how your ideas are so complex that they can’t be conveyed properly… It’s deferring blame and responsibility. There’s no other way to improve than the methodical, thoughtful dissection of problems and tackling each and every obstacle one step at a time. Getting down to the very basics, to the foundation and constantly augmenting it. There are no get-rich-quick schemes and no magic pills to learning.  If you don’t understand something, the only solution is to spend time on it and work it out, not to sweep it under the carpet.It’s finding a real solution rather than emotional relief. Not owning up to where you are now may feel good in the moment, but in the long term will cause you more pain than being honest and getting to work.

Build Your Foundation – Jingna reiterates the importance of design principles in this lesson. I especially loved the fact that she makes the distinction that these are not rules, they are ideas and tools, they become knowledge that you apply on the fly as you work. You’re not re-creating a recipe, with precise steps to be followed for success, you’re building a knowledge base that you use as you work. It’s a framework of understanding. It’s like language. After you use it long enough, you’d rarely ponder the correct grammatical usage of a certain word or phrase… you’d say whatever feels right. This ‘feel’ that you get, is a result of all the practice, observation and imitation that you’ve done so far. Design is just another language. A way to organize and present information, to convey a message or feeling. And the goal is not to measure everything in your frame with a ruler so that it’s spaced perfectly to the rule of thirds, it’s to use this language dynamically and generate meaning, and find ways to express your message.

Broaden Your Studies – Jingna mentioned on the forum that she studies many other things apart from photography. if you’ve not had a look at the notes on the course that she’s provided, I highly encourage you to do so. Taking Ash and Jingna’s classes has really inspired me to look into a lot of peripheral concepts that are incredibly interesting. I’ve started researching cinematography more, looking up old black and white films and I’ve gone back to a few of my film text books from years ago. Focusing on one concept leads to mastery. But only doing one thing leads to stagnation. So you’ll always benefit from expanding and finding more subjects that will feed your art, even indirectly.  Having said that – I keep Jingna’s mantra in mind – First, master one thing. So I always try and bring back whatever it is that I’m doing into some sort of context that does feed my art practice. So even if it’s a completely different subject, I’m still trying to find ways to just master the one thing I’m focusing on.

Thank you Jingna!




Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 3 – Basic Light and Values

Architecture – Throughout the course so far and I expect within the next lectures, Maciej has been delivering an awesome overview of architecture. This is very, very much appreciated. I’ve collected tons of books over time and inevitably I’ve run into the trap of trying to learn too much and getting lost in details that are unusable for me at that stage. Maciej does an incredible job at delivering architectural history that is very much targeted for illustration or concept art. It’s the major differences between styles, the changes that can be observed as history progresses and how you can implement these in your work to create a style that blends reality with fiction. Amazing, very succinct and condensed information. I’ll definitely be going over these again, many times. For people not taking the course – or with any new subject matter you’re trying to tackle, I’d advise taking Maciej’s example. Look for visual distinctions, find out what makes each evolution different from the previous stage of the subject, look for the stereotypes and don’t get lost in the material, you don’t need to learn the entire history of architecture or of the world for that matter to create an image, you only need to know enough to make something plausible and believable. It’s obviously better to know more, but we all have a time limit, you can never know everything.

It would be great to get Maciej’s sources for all this info and just as a general thing, I’d love to know what subjects, specifically Maciej studies. I understand architecture and geology for environments, what would you study for mechs and hard surface design, or creatures, or vehicles and what would the sources be? And I don’t mean to just look at machines for mechs or anatomy for creatures, I mean the specific, more in-depth sources of information that may not be as obvious. I’d love a whole course on subjects and how to navigate them and different resources… Just throwing ideas out there… J

Light and Materials – Maciej has been steadily arming us with all possible tools necessary to render… not just environments really, but pretty much anything, from photoshop to general principles in art. The overview of different lighting situations and materials is definitely appreciated, it’s great to see different people’s take on these, since without exception each time I’ve seen or read anything on materials and light, there’s always something being added on and I definitely had some good takeaways from these. Maciej’s approach is very technical and explains a variety of effects necessary to render realistic images. For those that might want to dive deeper – you should check out Scott Robertson’s How to Render book or his YouTube channel. I’ve also written a big tutorial based on Scott’s book, with a lot of reference and exercises, hoping this helps someone J


Values – Maciej’s exploration of composition principles was also very useful. Ever since the courses began I’ve been aware of how much I try to overcomplicate things to compensate for lack of understanding. It was awesome to see Maciej go through several paintings and analyze the value structures that make the images work. For me the value grouping concept was especially useful, since this is something that is not covered very often. More info on composition and more analysis of images would be very much appreciated J I would love to get Maciej’s perspective on this.

Start With Shadows – I’ve seen Maciej, Jama and Anthony all paint with a single value. When you take an image in photoshop and apply a threshold adjustment to it – all that will be left are the dark areas, but the image will still feel realistic and photographic. In this lesson Maciej advises to first start with shadows, get these areas established, balance out the image, then work on creating appropriate contrasts to guide the viewer. This is something that I’ll definitely be trying and I’ll be coming back to Maciej’s demo to see how his image is built up. I normally need more context to be able to see form better, so I end up mixing up midtones and shadows, it’ll be a good challenge to start with shadows only and learn to design these out.

There Is No Loss – Final note, this came out pretty long already… I often talk with people about trial and error. A lot of people feel like they’re wasting time when they’re not doing the 1 thing that will give them the most possible benefit. Truth is, that to find that one thing, you have to go through a lot of errors. There’s just no way around it. Human beings, as a species, we are all self-taught, there are no books for us to discover and learn from, we write these as we get better. All discoveries are made through trial and error and slow, methodical learning. There’s no possible chance that you’ll always be doing the one most correct thing. Someone can point these things out for you from time to time, but really then it’s up to you to find the correct way to do that one thing. So trial and error is inextricably linked to any learning. It’s constant experimenting and growth. Maciej advises to not be too attached to your work, that even failed attempts still serve a larger purpose – to clarify ideas for your team. In other words, there is no loss. It all comes down to how you see things. You can either shudder at the thought of doing something for nothing, or you can simply appreciate, learn, grow and keep going regardless of outcome, but it all comes down to you and how you see the world around you. You can lose at everything or you can simply take the viewpoint of there being no loss. There is always a benefit to every loss, you just have to not take things at surface value.

Thank you Maciej!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 3 – Storytelling And Composition II

Timeless – This idea is awesome. I’ve changed a lot of things about how I work since starting this course. Same could be said for Jama’s last course too J I’ve started trying to find the most basic possible form that something can be represented in. Rather than covering things in textures and light, I test out the basic forms and shapes first. It too simplistic to me before, but this is where real, solid progress can be made. It’s going back to absolute basics, finding out what’s really important and establishing that first, then progressing to the polish. It’s almost redundant to say this since it seems like it should be self-evident, but the point is just how much you can pull back before you can strip something down to bare minimum. 1 tone, 100% opacity, solid shapes within a frame. The more that you can strip something down to its core essence, the more likely you are to discover a principle that can be applied to many other things. Jama’s ideas of simplification and creating images that are archetypal, you can read countless meanings into them and can clarify them with the more complex techniques of 3D or painting. It’s figuring out design before adding anything more to the frame. It’s Jingna’s mantra – First Master One Thing.

Be Decisive – I’ve mentioned this in previous notes, but this is a principle, it applies not only to specific cases, but really to pretty much all of life. Whatever it is that you decide to do – be bold with it, don’t just kind of pick something, don’t go half way only. Pick an idea and drive it all the way through, push it so that it’s crystal clear. All the things we’ve mentioned before about simplicity and clarity – they are part of the same concept. Make your ideas or your decisions crystal clear and definite. It requires boldness and some courage, but the alternative is to end up with a message that really is for no one and will go unnoticed. The specific example from the lecture? Camera angles J Jama often points out that there are ways to frame scenes that make sense and are clear and distinct, then there are other ones that are right in the middle, in between the clear options there are the not-so-sure-about-this options… We often use these when we’re not confident in what we’re doing. I used to do this with shading. Doing a very bright, reflective highlight on something always seemed uncomfortable, too much contrast, too bold, it always seemed better to soften it up and lower the contrast a bit, which of course made the surface completely non-reflective… an in-between material. So beware of in-betweens. Go for clarity and simplicity.

Master Studies – Another great point here, we all know of painting master studies, but Jama makes a great point that these masters exist in many different fields. Films have their modern masters, the famous directors we all know, but there are also old masters, people who were restricted by technology and had to do the best they could without all the benefits of post or pre production and visualization available now. Especially when working in value, old black and white films become an invaluable resource to study lighting, composition and value structure. Anthony Jones had also advised to look old directors up in his course, so highly recommended.

Thank you Jama!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 3 – A Controlled Experiment


This was Awesome – This lesson was pretty much the reason why I take Ash’s courses. It had absolutely everything that I’ve seen in his workflow, demonstrated and proven to work. Awesome.

Composition – This is a concept that’s been covered by all the instructors this term, each one bringing their own unique take and ideas. Ash had some very subtle distinctions and insights to share, once shown within the context of images though, they made complete sense and are something that definitely has a huge impact once understood. The use of implied line for me is especially elusive and I tend to not notice it, since it’s hard to know when you’re trying to read too much into an image and are investing it with meaning, rather than deciphering what’s there. I think within the first 3 lessons, without even trying, Ash has convinced me that there is so much more work invested in each image that he’s presented as reference, than what we would normally expect. The level of craftsmanship and thought is astounding. Point taken, will read up on the more abstract notions on composition and keep an eye out for them.

Subtlety – I completely lack it… It’s very difficult for me to finesse anything, I tend to be very heavy handed. Yet, of course, most of the sophistication of an image comes from the subtle nuances. A great quote from Ash here, right after an eye-opening demonstration of the subtlety within an image from Pixar (note to self – watch more animation…) “Great practices done simply, often times create the most memorable work”. Absolutely,100% need to get this engraved on all our brains. This term, from all 4 courses, has most importantly made me reconsider simplicity. A popular quote from da Vinci – Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication… Need to restart and do one more pass at everything I’ve learned so far. This time, without trying to complicate things, but stripping everything down to the core. Awesome J

Multiple Passes – I almost missed this. This is more Ash-specific awesomeness. It has to do with how he extracts meaning from a simple premise. First, he deconstructs the main idea, putting together keywords and brainstorming what comes to mind based off those keywords. Great. Then comes the awesome part. He takes those brainstormed keywords, those secondary elements, and extracts associations from them. This is might sound simple, but is absolutely crucial. It’s such a great path to creativity. With the first batch of keywords come the general ideas and initial connections. Then doing the whole process again, with the more specific keywords, gives rise to details and deeper connections that would not have happened at that first pass. This is a recipe for creativity. I wish that we could remember all we know at all times. We all know that doing a second pass at a painting would give us a better result, but how many of us apply this concept to more than just painting. Do a second pass. Whatever you do, if you need to get deeper with your thinking – do a second pass. Don’t rely on level 1 ideas, everyone has those. Keep digging, that’s the way to get to details that are personable to you and can put your stamp on whatever you’re creating. Incredibly valuable idea.

Organization & Thinking – Quick final thoughts here. I’ve mentioned before about Ash’s organized workflow, he talked in the previous course about keeping things organized, clean and ready so that you can focus on the ideas and not interrupt your creative flow. Complexity tends to create a lot of chaos and how you manage all your assets is crucial. I can definitely use a lot of improvement in that department. And finally – the quality of your work, after the initial learning stages, will depend on the quality of your thoughts and of your ideas. This is another thing that is completely obvious, but when you’re immersed in the work and practicing every day, it’s hard to make that switch. If you’re always in practice mode, you get in the habit of not thinking about ideas, since all you’re focused on is improving. Narrative Ideas are almost an impediment since they detract from focusing on the technology or tools you’re learning. I’ve definitely lost the habit of thinking, even though it’s the thing that most often drives us all to become artists in the first place. Another paradigm shift that needs to happen because of this course.

Thank you Ash!


Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 3 – Concepts and Casting

Be a Pro – I’ve been very impressed with Jingna’s work ethic since the very first video in the course. Just seeing her very neatly arranged storage area for lights was enough to convey the idea that she is very organized. Getting to find out more about the shoot process now and how elaborate it turns out to be, having to manage a team of people, source props, hire models, budget and over top of that still manage your lighting, shoot and think of all the different artistic principles you have to keep in mind must take a tremendous amount of effort, will and discipline, not to mention the ability to withstand stress and work with ever changing, imperfect conditions. If you’ve read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, you already know what a pro is. A pro is someone who gets to work regardless of how they feel, if it’s raining or sunny, or whatever other external circumstances may arise as excuses to producing work. Jingna’s preparation to deal with contingencies, her hard won wisdom about having backups, thoroughly screening models, having multiple options and also the emotional pain she’s gone through when shoots have fallen through or she hasn’t been able to deliver a good result to her art director all show that she’s the definition of a pro. It’s very inspiring to see the level of organization and preparation that she and all the other instructors put into their work. It’s also a great grounding in reality. A lot of the magic that we can see in the final product can be traced back directly to the level of preparedness, organization and discipline that people bring to their work beforehand.

Don’t Keep it Simple – I’ve been hammering a lot on the fact that this term is really making me refocus on what’s really important and to try and simplify things down to bare essentials in order to be able to practice more core principles. One thing about life though – it’s never simple. When we have control – we can simplify. And this ties back to my note from last week on Jama’s course, that simplicity is the realm of masters. When you know what you’re doing you can peel back layers of complexity, disentangle concepts from their many relationships and focus on executing what you think is most important. When you introduce other people to the equation though, having to acquire physical objects that may break, technical faults that may happen, things become anything but simple. Having contingency plans, backups and being prepared to perform regardless of how your plans might change are an entirely different universe, it becomes anything but simple. So simplify where you can, but don’t be fooled into thinking that everything can be stripped of complexity. In fact the whole point of simplicity is that you can layer it on so many levels that it becomes very complex, but you’re only handling one piece of the puzzle at a time. Very impressive work ethic, very complex process and tons of logistics to think of, very much looking forward to seeing how the rest of the shoot goes J

Thank you Jingna!



Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 4 – Color and Photo Textures

Depth of Knowledge – Another 2 architectural styles this week, I really love this part of the course, this will be something that I can always use as a reference in the future and I will definitely be coming back to it multiple times and when the course finishes I can definitely see myself rewatching just the architectural portion by itself to get the full picture and be able to better contrast all the different styles side by side. As always, Maciej’s knowledge goes very deep, how he’s managed to put so much information in a single brain is beyond me, unless his brain is like his workstation, in which case there’s 2-3-4 of everything in there… Always very inspirational.

Study Time of Day – Maciej does an intro to photobashing in this lesson. Again, if you’ve not seen his gumroads – there is a lot more of this technique demonstrated there and there’s also a free YouTube video he’s posted that’s about 2 hours long on this topic. Nevertheless though, I’d definitely like to see him do more of that in this course, just so I can see how his thinking has changed. He approaches the whole problem very cerebrally and thoughtfully, whereas I would think to slap things together and pray that it comes out ok. Obviously not a good approach. A great takeaway for me was to study particular times of day, I remember Alex Alvarez had shown a website that has landscape timelapses over 24 hours, so you could see how lighting changes throughout the course of a day. I definitely need to do some research on that and understand more of the specifics on outdoor lighting. The time of day directly connects to the photobashing, since only images taken under similar lighting conditions would work well. I’ve heard a lot of concept artists refer to this. As always – whenever you hear the same thing from multiple people – it’s time to listen carefully.

Creating Repeatability – This is a note taken from creating custom brushes. To create variability, instead of only having one element – take 2 or maybe several. That way when creating trees for instance you won’t end up with the same thing over and over again. Also, avoid uniqueness. So you want to have some variance, but nothing too much – that would be too identifiable. So to create a good, repeatable pattern – go for averages. This is the formula- not just one and not too many, also not too similar but nothing too recognizable. Kind of sounds like camouflage, and in a way that’s exactly what it is. Awesome subtlety with these distinctions from Maciej.

Match Color – This technique is incredibly powerful and I’ve been underusing it, to not blatantly say that I forget to use it completely. The implications of the tool are huge and the speed and results that it yields are awesome. Combine it with selections and it becomes even more powerful. This refers to the Photoshop Match Color adjustment.

Imperfection is Realism – Another concept I found extremely useful, I tend to be somewhat perfectionistic and I think a lot of us are, I have a natural tendency to try and make things too uniform and to straighten things out, resulting in things looking too mechanical. Maciej points out that in painting, you want to try and create variation within each surface, perfection is not to be expected. The overall impression may be one of uniform hue, but when looking from up close, there will be tons of variability in the observable colors. It’s something that I’m sure we’ve all observed, but I definitely not apply this enough and fixate way too much on creating uniformity, when in fact I need to introduce a bit more chaos.

Thank you Maciej!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 4 – Painting Methods

Evaluate Your Tools – Jama is phenomenal at analyzing his arsenal. It’s no wonder that he manages to create so many techniques that are unique, which at a time when there are so many people sharing their knowledge seems to be astounding. There is so much overlap in most tutorials out there, yet here is this one person consistently inventing new ways to use what everyone else seems to be using in the same exact way with minor variations. I can’t help but think that it’s his deep analysis and explorations of possibilities that makes this possible. Consistently analyzing, drilling down and going deeper and deeper, comparing one technique vs another, evaluating and combining tools and techniques, never feeling like you’ve mastered something completely and thus closing it off to improvement, these seem to be key ingredients in Jama’s ability to be inventive and creative, not only with his art, but with the means of creating it. This lesson was very eye opening.

When Designing – Stay Loose – This was mentioned in passing, but I think it’s very important. When I was first starting out, I was looking at a lot of stuff from Scott Robertson, his very precise method of construction and his ability to design and construct at the same time. This, looking back at it now, is obviously the capability of someone who has design and drawn things for many years. For me – I can only do one thing at a time. I can either think construction or design, Jama’s advice to focus on design and stay loose, leave the refinement for later is very much in alignment with what I’ve discovered, I only wish I would have found it out earlier 🙂

Don’t Be Constrained by Preconceptions – This whole entire course Jama has been showing us that there is a creative use for anything. The story he shared in lesson 1, about growing up as a kid and not having Legos, but playing with the Soviet alternative – metal pieces that you screw in together with nuts and bolts (I’ve played with those too:) ) ,seems to definitely have paid off in terms of willingness to investigate and try every potentiality out. Filters in Photoshop are probably the most disused area of the program for most artists. I barely ever use them. Though I’ve seen people like Bert Monroy create incredibly hyper-real paintings with them. There is a huge amount of potential everywhere. Don’t let a technique or tool that’s been labelled a certain way stop you from finding its potential use. Layer styles and filters are automatically associated with being cheesy. Don’t cut the tool off just because of popular usage. There is so much potential within these things. In Jama’s last course I learned how to create tons of detail using 3D very quickly. I thought that was as good as it gets. Now he’s come back and he’s making it clear that 2D, with no photobashing, has just as much potential in generating tremendously complex detail that by merely painting would take forever to complete. Incredible potential is hidden everywhere, in every single corner, in every tool that’s not been explored, in every new combination of old techniques. Jama is living proof of that.

Suggestion vs Statement – Since starting this course I’ve followed as much of Jama’s advice as I could cram into my head with these initial viewings. First being abstract and working more on shapes, now combining that with more suggestive ways of painting helps me see so much more potential than I normally could. I don’t really have a lot of experience designing, so my attempts tend to be very stiff and uninspired. Staying loose helps my brain see a lot more potential, rather than trying to come up with things on my own. I expect the balance will shift at some point with more experience, but these are incredibly powerful tools that I can definitely see myself using for a very long period of time. Once again – Timeless 🙂

Thank you Jama!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 4 – Graphic Design Basics

Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style – Awesome quote to get this lesson started.

Design – Another great take on design, I think every single course has covered the basics of design this term, in the future I’d love to see more demos, since they’re really helpful in seeing the behind the scenes thinking and decision making that the instructors go through. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, more in-depth discussion on how to create a cohesive design language and multiple examples of that as well would be awesome. How to not overdesign and work something up too much, how to limit your choices, these and many more would be great to get more info and perspective on. I’ve recently started looking more into design, these lectures are coming in at the perfect time, so the more about design – the better.

Deep Analysis – I’ve mentioned before about how deep Ash goes with his analysis. I’ve seen this as something that I’ve been neglectful of. I’ve been spending so much time working to improve on my tools and understanding how to create visuals that I’d completely turned my back on thinking deeply about ideas. This is a balancing act, same as everything else, sometimes balance is in the extremes. I’ve really enjoyed Ash’s interpretations and investigation of meaning in films and series, I’ve also gotten the majority of the books he’s suggested throughout the course and am very happy to be looking at ideas again. Will be revisiting my copy of Film Art: An introduction, I haven’t looked at it for years, very excited about being able to start combining visuals with ideas.

Have a Method – This is another idea that I’ve recently become more aware of, as I can start to try and tackle work that’s a bit more complex, the need to organize better and create a system is imperative. Ash comments that his own method is to tackle small pieces of the big problem, his workflow is also systematized, he uses the same sequence of thinking and tools to deconstruct the issue and begin to devise the solution. Definitely something I need to spend more time on and create a routine or system that lets me most effectively approach new tasks. Great to see Ash’s example.

Simple to Complex – In the last term there were a lot of projects being built from very simple ideas to incredibly complex finals. Ash’s sketches from both terms were very basic, the reason for that as I’ve learned from Jama as well – it’s simpler to manipulate basic information, you don’t have to worry about anything but the ideas. I’m very excited to see how the thumbnails from this week will translate into finished pieces as one of my reasons to have avoided simplicity before is that I simply lacked the knowledge to be able to translate these into finals, so it’s always great for me when I get to see more of this done so I can keep consolidating the knowledge.

Thank you Ash!


Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 4 – Team Building and Planning

What Comes After Mastery – I was expecting the photo shoot to have a lot of logistics involved, but what I’ve seen so far is beyond anything I thought. There are so many aspects to think about, the whole project hinges on organization and communication between a team of people. One person is not enough. This, naturally, translates over to games, films, anything really. It all hinges on many people, who have mastered their craft, working together and collaborating to create a larger whole. So what comes after mastery? After you’ve spent enough time in the basement, practicing non-stop for years – almost a completely different skillset. You’ll still perform your craft, but it becomes an ingredient in a larger whole. It’s necessary, but it no longer is the sole focus of everything you do. Seeing the process of Jingna’s shoot so far has been eye opening and it offers a great look at what other skills are necessary to develop in order to be successful. Mastery alone, though indispensable, is not enough.

Plan For Chaos – I love that Jingna shares her stories of how things sometimes don’t work out, from previous lessons and the stories shared there I can also see that she cares very deeply about her work and wants to do great work for others. So when things fall through, it’s very painful. Dealing with people is always one of the most difficult, unpredictable things you might have to do. I think that’s why some of us may have decided to pursue art instead… It definitely makes me appreciate being able to generate visuals on my own and not have to go through the chaos of having to manage a team and collaborate with others. People are unpredictable. You can never be certain about anything. The things most people say have no correlation to how they’ll choose to act. Most of the time we can’t even figure out our own thoughts or predict our own behavior… So when you introduce all of these unknowns together, then multiply them by the amount of people working as a team, there are so many things that can go wrong. So, following Jingna’s second mantra – Always prepare, have a backup and meet in person. In other words – plan for chaos. Don’t just go for something that sounds good. Assume that there is a high likelihood of change. That people may be unreliable, that plans may fall through, but you still have to deliver at the end of the day.

Emotional Intelligence – I love Jingna’s philosophy on dealing with setbacks. “Being emotional, in itself, is a waste of time”. When things go wrong, move one, find a solution, there is no point in dwelling on what’s happened or why. It is what it is. And if you’ve been planning for chaos, you should have expected it to some degree anyway. Learn from it, revise how you’ll plan for the future based on what’s happened and get going on the backup plan. Then communicate to everyone what’s happened and make adjustments. It doesn’t end with you, it spreads to the team. Very important note.

Books – I can’t help but think about a few books as I’m watching Jingna’s course. The many roles she has to take, thinking as a leader, then as a photographer, organizing everything, but still keeping track of the vision she has, not to mention shooting and all the years that have gone into developing that skill alone. The E Myth by Michael Gerber talks a lot about the different roles that small business owners/ entrepreneurs have to perform as they’re working on their business. A photoshoot is no different in terms of logistics, the same thinking and roles are required. And also Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership, which is a book about leadership and taking responsibility for everything that has to do with whatever it is you’re doing. Jingna definitely exhibits those traits and has the same advice to share. That’s hard won wisdom and her bravery and willingness to go through all of these different ordeals in order to get to her desired end result is incredibly inspiring and commendable… And it’s also a reality check. I couldn’t do what she does, definitely. I couldn’t deal with the chaos the way she does. Jingna is incredibly skillful, but not just as a photographer. And being a photographer alone is not enough to be a great photographer. You have to work on the skills that come after mastery and Jingna has put in a great deal of love in her craft to go through all the pain that her learning must have cost. That’s incredible to witness, even through the lens of an online course.

Thank you Jingna!




Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 5 – Shapes and Design

New = (Existing Element + Existing Element) x Combined in A New Way – Going with Maciej through the history of architecture and making a few observations about the styles we’ve seen so far, it’s very common for one style to merge into a new one with very minor variations, consequently yielding 2 styles – The old new and the Old + minor variation. The more styles that develop, the greater the pool of elements that can be combined. This is why learning design at this stage is pretty challenging, it’s because the pool has grown so much that the options seem limitless and almost arbitrary. History is a great foundation though. After this course, I’ll be getting as much reference on the history of everything as possible, since the evolutions of style are not constrained to a single avenue – architecture, weapons, technology, etc – these all exhibit the same changes over time and having a greater understanding of history is a great way to root your design in reality. As for the formula in the title – you can literally use that as a method for creativity, this goes for almost any discipline, definitely not just for art.

Layering Contrast – The more I learn about design, the more I think most of its features can be boiled down to different types of contrast. Listening to Maciej talk about his use of shape language was very insightful, the demo video is definitely something I’ll revisit several more times and watch without the audio also to just get a better idea of what’s being done, but not necessarily communicated. The idea of describing different areas of the environment with different shape languages to create separation between them is an awesome idea. Normally, when I think of an environment, all the elements need to go together, to create a convincing, plausible area. Consciously utilizing contrasting shape languages to push foreground / midground apart seems like an awesome idea, definitely higher level thinking in terms of design. I normally focus so much on trying to create something in a convincing way, that I lose some of that initial preparation, which is something I’ve noted with all the courses this term. What layering contrast refers to is the idea that contrast exists in almost as many areas as you could think about. Contrast of value, color, shape, texture, material, light, idea, direction, intent, ideology, etc, etc, etc. The more of these that you can identify and build into your piece, the more clear or engaging your piece may become. As with all recipes – results may vary and take it with a grain of salt, these are just general observations.

Shape Design Beyond Words – I’ve been asking in these notes if the instructors could cover more about creating shape languages, how shapes go together, how to make all these choices that add up to a cohesive, well designed whole, but it seems to me like these are things that are almost beyond words. I look at shapes constantly and try to analyze what makes them dynamic, what the different combinations are of good shapes vs bad shapes. What would make a shape clunky and sub-optimal, how would you go about making it more dynamic. Maciej works with such speed and the same goes for all the instructors in their respective media, that it’s obvious that they’re not consciously thinking about shape choices. They may have an overarching idea about what direction the piece will be taken in and they definitely consider what shapes would convey that, but the small individual shapes – as they’re being created – a lot of them are on autopilot. You can’t go in and analyze every single minor rock shape or blade of grass, you’ll never finish. What great pros have developed is an internal mental model of what great design looks like, what great shapes look like, what combinations would work well together and they execute on these mental models and obviously tweak them as necessary for each piece. But maybe the answer I’ve been crying for all this time isn’t necessarily something that can be delivered verbally or described, because even if it was – it would be unsatisfactory. You can’t measure every shape, you can’t optimize it individually. So maybe I need to quit crying about it and do some more practice instead and build some better mental models…

Thank you Maciej!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 5 – Blending Modes

Blending Modes – It’s like selections, but with a bonus element of serendipity, also takes less time and almost always works. I suppose this is how I’d describe to myself why the blending modes deserve their own place in your arsenal. And again, Jama’s managed to turn something most people would overlook completely or click several times and think “I got it”, into something that’s now creative and unique. Jama’s art is not only his art, it’s the way he makes his art… Back to blending modes – where a selection might fail – image is too busy, a blending mode might still get you what you’re after. It also gets done in 2 clicks. You might also end up getting a lot of ideas you didn’t expect, which is a Jama specialty again, and allows you to explore tons of variations you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of or would even have time to try out. As with all of Jama’s stuff – this is implemented to help you get ideas on the page in nanoseconds. Quick note – blending modes aren’t in competition with the selection tools, they work together and Jama uses these a lot too, just comparing them to get the idea across. Sometimes selections are faster.

Keep Complexity Simple – The previous lessons have been all about keeping things simple, focusing on first things first, getting the big shapes done and the ideas clear. When connecting the dots, it’s easy to realize that this is in preparation for the complexity to come. Once values get mixed you go from silhouette and negative space to millions of transitions in between. You can build depth, separate planes, create overlaps, these things all compound for a huge amount of complexity very quickly. Spending time in preparation and making sure everything is working before introducing that chaos seems like a great idea. The introduction of blending modes is Jama’s way of finding simple ways to create complexity. That’s a great idea. Keeping complexity simple. Instead of trying to paint everything – use what’s already on your canvas as material to photobash, distort, warp, blend, etc and get some free elements to work with. This entire course Jama’s kept things simple and within photoshop and he’s proven that you can pretty much make everything you need without needing to go out of your way to look for scrap photos, textures, etc. These can be made by clever ways of combining filters, effects and blending things together. Visual complexity is generated by introducing many elements together and having them interact. Creating a few assets and using these to generate tons more – that’s keeping it simple. And it also uses the creativity recipe from the notes on Maciej’s lesson. Keep re-introducing the same element in a variety of ways and with different distortions and you end up with a whole array of new elements. Keep repeating that process and you can see there’s no limit to the complexity and it grows exponentially. Managing complexity always becomes the biggest problem. Keeping things simple is the most direct solution.

Library of Abstract Shapes – Jama mentioned that he used to keep a library of abstract shapes, I think that’s an awesome idea. I also know Scott Robertson has huge folders full of abstract images created with photo filters, mirroring, etc. So abstract = fuel for the brain and great for ideas. You can find that a lot of people use it, so definitely something to make note of and add to your arsenal. Keeping folders filled with abstract blots, shapes, etc is a great way to get ideas jump started. So next time you have a crazy doodle that you think is horrid – don’t tear up your paper or delete the file, save it, in several years time when you’re awesome – it’ll be fuel for the brain.

Thank you Jama!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 5 – Finishing Graphic Design

Invite Chaos – For the entire 2 terms I’ve been observing how Ash’s system is structured to keep everything focused, to allow for focus and staying on track amidst the sea of possibilities that ultimately get you to wander away from your initial intention. Finally, in photoshop, Ash lets loose and invites some chaos in. Tons of layers, tons of brushes, a time to play around and let go of the usual systems. A few really cool things to try – brush or gradient set to use dissolve as the tool’s blending mode (not the layer) – gives a really cool, grainy look. Combined with texture brushes this would probably be even more textural. And also a great takeaway – don’t try to be perfect at every stage. Be comfortable with things sucking for some time, it’s a part of the process. Be ok with imperfection and recognize it as a stage of development… this gets easier as you get more masterful, otherwise it’s always a struggle to just complete whatever the goal is. And final note here – as you introduce chaos and drop your systems, be aware that this may end up costing you later down the line, even though you may get some great serendipity. So do this wisely, if it’s play time – awesome, if it’s work and you’re just getting overwhelmed by emotion – probably not a good idea to be chaotic. Pick your battles.

Enjoy the Process – You can tell that Ash was enjoying what he was doing in this lesson. It was just palpable. He was playing, creating, exploring – having fun. If you’re in this for the long haul – you have to learn to enjoy what you’re doing. Going too hard or always being focused on outcomes only will sap your energy at some point, regardless of how much willpower you have. At that stage – it’s burnout time. Yes it’s a job. Yes, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll make it so you have to work hard. But you’ll be your own worst enemy if you treat yourself as a slave driver would, rather than appreciating and enjoying the ride. And enjoy it now. Don’t wait until you make it or fulfil whatever you’ve decided in your head is the end goal. Have an awesome time now, regardless of outcome. If you burn out – you won’t be working anyway, so if you are incredibly driven – just view play and rest time as refuel time that’ll keep you going for longer.

Reflect – I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but Ash does a thorough analysis after each project and how it’s gone, if he’s fulfilled the brief, what he’s done well, what he could have done better. This is crucial. In my own experience – whatever I want to improve at, I need to sit down and write about it. If you don’t reflect you’re missing the lessons, or you’re not driving them deep enough, or you’re just missing out on connections you could be making. Any time I sit down to write I always come up with new stuff, even when I think I’m done with a subject. There are always more levels, there is always more to be gotten from even the most simplistic of tools. Jama’s course is a collection of precisely this way of thinking. Anything you want to improve – sit down, get a piece of paper, start writing down everything you know, asking yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, how it could be improved, what could be done differently. This works for anything and is pretty much bulletproof. If you’re not reflecting on your work you’re leaving gains on the table… and you need your gains…

Thank you Ash!


Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 5– Photoshoot

Preparation – There must be at least 1 other note on Jingna’s course that’s called “preparation”, if not – I need to go back and put it in somewhere. It’s literally the single 1 most important factor in how things will go as the event unfolds. This doesn’t apply to photography, it goes for anything. Preparation is key. If you’re rushing into a job, whatever it may be, if you’re pushing your art skills, but you’re still at the beginning stages and all you’re after is a job – you’re not preparing enough, even if you do get it, the results may be pretty bad. Apply any scenario to the above formula, I’m sure it’ll fit perfectly. If you’re under-preparing, if you’re not sure where you’re headed, what the outcome should be, what the means will be, how you get there – you will get somewhere, sure, but it’s likely that you won’t be happy with the result and if there was a very specific outcome that had to be achieved – you’ll most likely miss the mark. Apply this to life or to art, it’s equally valid. Jingna’s course is a constant reminder of having to prepare at each and every stage, for every contingency, to keep other people’s needs in mind, to plan for chaos and to always have a backup… and to make sure your camera isn’t set on JPEG but on RAW… 😉 After taking Jingna’s course I can 100% clearly see that I’m under preparing and under planning. Both super valuable insights and seeing how she does her work just lets you know where the bar is set in terms of organization. Time to rehaul the system…

Testing – This is technically part of preparation, but since I said I need to add a second preparation note… Testing your lights with a stand-in before you begin makes a lot of sense in getting ready for the coming shoot. Testing out the separate elements though – that’s awesome. Having someone hold up garments that will be photographed or whatever other elements that will be in the shot – this is testing in reality if what you have in your head will translate. I think this causes discomfort for a very many of us. Finding out that what you had planned and envisioned in your head might not happen – this will cause you anxiety regardless of what you’re doing. And again, apply this to both art and life. A lot of us would prefer to not test, to not find out for sure if what we were thinking of might be unfeasible. Sometimes you need that hard-headedness to power through problems, but whatever you can test, and know with certainty whether it would work or not – this is the realist approach, and the professional approach too. You have to know if it’ll work. You have to test as much as you can each and every piece of your game. If it’s art you’re doing – test in isolation if your strokes are working, if you’re just doing habitual shapes, if you’re rushing through stages, then combine the whole thing back together to form your now improved skillset. Practice is the preparation stage. Execution is the photoshoot. This is why I keep repeating that these things apply to art and life. It’s a general approach to problem solving. Be strategic and prepared and you’ll win more than you lose. Be hectic, chaotic and unprepared and you might win occasionally, but don’t let that fool you, general trajectory is downwards…

Long Term Use & Reusability – Another aspect for me to improve on. I’ve mentioned in the notes on term 1 how Ash reuses the assets he generates. From this week I commented on Jama’s abstract library, Scott Robertson also does a similar thing, now Jingna… time to implement this too. Don’t do a lot of work for a single use. I do this constantly and it’s from my “learning mentality”. I call it that because I just do a lot of work and I discard it, I’m only looking to improve from what I’m doing. But, this could also be a stage where a lot of work gets saved in order to be reused. If you create something that’s reusable, that’s complex and took you time and effort to complete – save it as an asset, a preset or whatever it may be. Take advantage of whatever you’ve already created. You don’t have to start from scratch and just because something may not be great now, doesn’t meant that you shouldn’t use it as a platform to start from next time. Always use everything you possibly can to your advantage, reuse whatever can be reused and keep track of your assets. It seems like common sense, but with so many different things to manage at once, even simple things need to be made explicit and obvious, otherwise they get neglected. And Jingna again goes a step further in keeping things organized and even has a naming convention in place based on the variables that are important to reusing previously saved work… I’m not too sure my brain can handle that…

Put The Work Away – Pretty long notes already, but this was too good to miss. After shooting for a whole day, most people would not be able to resist having a look at all the work that’s been done, picking out images and working on them. Jingna gives incredibly advice, again, on managing your emotions. The fact that you’ll probably like some images better based on what you’ve experienced as you were doing the shoot I thought was very insightful. There’s no other way to get this knowledge and encode it than just pure, repeated experience. Translating this to more general terms – we’re all biased, emotionally driven and have poor judgment when affected by pretty much anything… If you’ve just finished something that was stressful/difficult -don’t hope to make good decisions at that point. Take some time to reboot, rest, recover and come back with a fresh look and disengaged from what’s happened throughout the day. Realistic, emotionally unbiased decisions is what gets you to where you need to go. How you manage to do that though is definitely way easier said than done… Jingna though is a master at work.

“You can always make up for lack of experience by being as prepared as you can” – Nothing to add…

Thank you Jingna!


Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 6 – Level Design

Take Your Time – This is a note I would have written about last week’s lesson, it definitely fits here too though, so it becomes a general theme. Take your time. Don’t rush through bad work just so you have more things completed. Get the job done well. Last week Maciej was rotating textures so they go from one perspective angle to another. He took his time to patch everything up, overpaint seams, make sure all elements are cohesive and still make sense. I normally tend to rush through things. A part of the problem is that I’m just not very good at simplifying complexity yet, so the amount of ideas and possibilities is overwhelming… because of that – I get lost in details and have lots of areas that are left unresolved. So there is a tradeoff for not fixing things – you get to explore more options. But once it’s clear what the idea is – take your time. Make things fit together, don’t leave things that don’t make sense. Get some reference if you’re not sure how something works and solve the problem. I see Maciej putting in time and effort in all his paintings, so… do like Maciej does and spend the time necessary to improve how everything comes together. There is no fast, one button resolution, just take your time.

Working With Constraints – The theme this week was hero objects, so Maciej was essentially overpainting a very rough screenshot. You can see more examples of him doing this on his gumroads. It’s a great way to tackle the overwhelm of complexity I mentioned in the note above. Stick to a few basic shapes and just make these work as a cohesive painting. For those that don’t have access to the course – give yourself a canvas with just a few rectangles or very, very basic shapes and turn these into a cohesive environment. You can add a background, but don’t add any more elements than what’s already there (no more rectangles or basic shapes for you!). It’s a great way to practice while having constraints, thus forcing you to limit your choices and just make do with what’s there. Aaaand luckily enough this just happens to be part of what you’ll be doing professionally, so that makes it all the better. Not only is it a great exercise, it’s professional development… How lucky can you get?

Turn The Audio Off – I’ve said this probably way too many times now, but if you’re not doing this – try it. Whatever tutorials you watch, whether it’s painting, 3D or anything – turn the audio off. Forget about what the theme is for the lesson, just look at the process, you’ll see so much more than you normally would because your attention isn’t anchored down by what the speaker is saying. If you’re in the course – go to last week’s video, turn the sound off and watch the demo again. You can learn so much from just watching Maciej paint.

Thank you Maciej!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 6 – 3D in Photoshop

Jama The Mad Scientist – I think it was in last term’s notes that I commented that we’re all only using about 20% of what we have available. Jama is a true testament to that. How this man manages to create all these techniques and in such a short period of time is beyond me. Jama’s use of tools is incredibly creative. If you’ve taken his last course – this lesson is a direct reflection of Jama’s philosophy of simplifying 3D and making it accessible. The ideas he’s come up with for this are incredibly innovative. We’re all sitting on a 3D tool that we underuse, this, of course is photoshop. It’s not so much that photoshop is a 3D package on its own, it lacks many of the functions that other tools have, but what Jama’s broad toolset offers is a choice, a tradeoff between complexity and what is required. After seeing him model in 3D, also Maciej’s approach and now the new approach of using photoshop as a 3D tool as well – the major decision becomes – what do I need and how do I get it in the fastest possible way without getting bogged down in detail. Which, saying this for the thousandth time, but in relation to something new so you can’t accuse me of saying this every time – keep it simple… And it’s also a direct reflection of Jama’s philosophy for this term – to focus on stories and minimize the time spent on tools, which he delivers on 100%.

Generating a Base – The use for photoshop’s 3D tools is mostly to generate a base, it’s not elaborate, highly complex models, it’s mostly simple forms with textures, bumps and most impressively – opacity maps. But what I’m really looking forward to is next week’s session where Jama will discuss his approach to photobashing, which I’m sure will be as innovative and awesome as all his other tools and techniques, no pressure Jama… If you’ve read my notes on Maciej’s lesson this week – we’re in familiar territory. Generating just enough to get started and establish the broad strokes, then jumping to photos to apply texturing and get some realism in your work. Very much looking forward to see how Jama combines simplicity and complexity and also keeps it simple, this would be awesome to see.

Thank you Jama!



Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 6 – Using 3D Software

Focus on What’s Important – The parts of Ash’s courses where we dive into 3D are my favorite. It really opens up my mind about focusing more on the subject matter rather than on the tool… duh… I tend to want to know every single knob and checkbox and the combinations between these, so I’ve wasted a lot of time going way deeper than necessary. It’s especially costly once you decide to switch softwares and now a lot of that work is lost since it was very specific. Point taken, once again – simplify, focus on ideas not on tools (unless you’re at the very beginning stages where your tools just need all the work) and don’t be a perfectionist. You don’t need to know everything. Ash makes stunning work, whilst claiming that he’s not a power user and is not looking to be one – lesson learned – your focus needs to be on what’s most important, I’ve invested a lot of time in tools and less on foundation and principles, even though at the time I thought I was doing the right thing. Always try to analyze, as best you can at your current skill level, whether you’re doing the right thing. It’s impossible to not make mistakes, but make sure you catch them and then don’t be bitter about having made them. Take it as an experience you can use to help someone else with and move on to making a new plan.

Become an Alchemist – I can’t wait for next week’s lesson. I know it’s when I’ll get to see how all the different pieces of software and concepts that Ash covers get to be combined together. Ash uses not only uses different pieces of software, he combined knowledge from different fields together. He melds a huge amount of components together to be able to create work that is unconstrained (as much as possible) from tools and only focus on being creative. Related to the note above – you need to know the tools enough to make your work possible. Witnessing Ash’s process of creating artwork, straddling 2D, 3D, design, typography, art, photography, lighting, rendering, compositing, generating assets and geometry, it’s awesome when you think of all the different pieces that come together to create the final image. Become an alchemist – combine multiple, diverse tools and meld them all together, bridge different fields and do not delineate or make distinctions between different disciplines, they all go together and can enhance each other for a final work that’s bigger than all the separate pieces.

Thank you Ash!


Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 6 – Photoshoot

Make Decisions – Jingna’s approach to choosing final images was eye-opening to witness. Her philosophy of creating iconic images and only revealing 1-2 finals is very strategic. Most people would want to post as many pictures as possible, to show that they’ve thought about all different aspects and whatever can’t be seen in one image will be found in another. Before seeing Jingna’s approach that was my default as well. That creates the impression of stock photography, the more images there are, the more the shoot is devalued. Only creating 1 to maybe 2 final images make for a much stronger impression. That is so counter-intuitive. We all want to share as much as possible, we all want to make as much work as we possibly can, but as we all know, that just creates too much noise, there are already too many things out there. So less becomes more and making strong decisions and cutting off options, being more strategic and providing less in terms of quantity and more in terms of quality turns out to be a better approach. It will also force you to be more engaged with your work and to not leave things to chance. I can see how Jingna’s very organized and deliberate approach is geared towards this very way of working. If you know you only have 1 final out of the whole enterprise, that would have otherwise cost you some serious time and money – you’d make sure to check everything 5 times before you get started, deconstruct every experience and learn from it afterwards. Very insightful.

Backup Your Work – Less philosophical and more pragmatic – make sure you’re backing up your work. I’ve never done this. I have since watching this class though. I remember listening to Bobby Chiu’s audiobook where he mentions that right as he was beginning to take his career off the ground, his computer got corrupted, he lost his portfolio. You can always make more work, but more than just for that, keeping records is a way to track your own development. Lose your studies and progress over the years and you can’t find what patterns you tend to get stuck in, because you can’t see your previous years of work. Not much more to say here – just get an external drive and back that stuff up. Hard drives will all fail at some point, so don’t wait for that to happen.

Thank you Jingna!



 Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 7 – Retouching

Clarity & Reusing Systems – This is essentially what we started with before the photoshoot – the necessity to figure out and plan for your outcome before you execute. I think it’s very important to point out here that yes, we are reusing the same system, the same thinking approach. This is crucial. A lot of times we will figure out a great way to do something, apply it, get good results and keep using it, but we’ll never generalize it to other tasks as well. So what we did before the photoshoot – getting clarity, pulling reference, deciding on the direction, we need to do that for each subsequent task. The retouching starts with establishing a clear direction and system of execution, it’s very important to have clarity at all times about whatever it is you’re doing and it’s probably the hardest thing to achieve as it requires time and it might provide a good deal of discomfort to establish the discipline to think before you act. This is, amongst many others, one of my top things to deal with and to improve on.

Foundation – You just can’t escape from this. I was impressed by Jingna’s statement that you have to have a good understanding of human anatomy for retouching. This is obviously a foundation that runs deep. A lot of us would associate retouching with smoothing skin, removing blemishes, etc – keeping things on the surface. I’ve also worked with photographers who would only want to achieve an effect, but not necessarily care if it’s plausible or realistic, as long as it’s cool. Developing that deep foundation is what’ll ultimately make your work stand out. There is no avoiding the time investment and effort required, but the payoff is that your work will have a quality that people will no foundation will not be able to match. Putting in effort, preparation and planning, maximizing the quality of each one of your works is I suppose how I would sum up the main key components of what I’ve learned from Jingna. And my new favorite quote, which I remind myself daily of – You can make up for lack of experience by being prepared. I absolutely love that idea. This would be the one, greatest learning accelerator that I can think of, other than having a mentor.

First Impressions Lie – Ok, this is another huge addition to the mental tool bag we all carry around – Take breaks, leave your image and come back to it. Work on it over a period of time. Intentionally put it away. This is huge for me. I think a lot of us attempt to finish pieces in a single sitting, a lot of this probably coming from time pressures to get things done faster. But that leads to poor judgment. What seems like a good idea now, when you’re affected by your emotions while working, may seem like an obviously bad choice when you can think more clearly. Again, we’re going back to Jingna’s thoughts on emotional control and keeping cool. One of the best ways to accurately judge your work is to leave it and come back to it. Do not impulsively stop and post something online just so you can call it finished. Be strategic and thoughtful. Consider all aspects of your work, analyze it, take breaks from it so you can see it without emotional attachments and do as Jingna says – what would stand the test of time.

Finesse – I’m less than 5 minutes in the lesson and I already have more than a page written, but I just can’t help it, this stuff is so good. Another favorite quote, slightly paraphrased – “Whatever you do should be a deliberate and artistic choice, every detail that you leave, remove or add should be intentional and not a result of laziness or not caring.” Take that and apply it to your life in general, not just to your art and there is absolutely no doubt that you can change or make anything happen. Incredibly powerful. Jingna’s work ethic and philosophy is insanely inspirational.

There is so much more I could write for this week, Jingna’s thoughts on her work are absolutely invaluable and with such a robust system in place it’s no surprise to me now that she can consistently produce such amazing work. Highly recommended whether you’re a photographer, artist, designer or just a plain old human being. Jingna’s thinking is what everyone should apply to their work, regardless of the field. It’s the master, the craftsman and the leader combined. It’s the mindset you need for success of any sort. And it’s very generalizable.

Thank you Jingna!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 7 – Matte Painting Techniques

Tools and Tradeoffs – I do have to admit that with taking all these courses at the same time and while still trying to organize all the knowledge I got from the previous term – managing complexity and sorting through tools becomes almost impossible. There are new tools, that are amazing, that are coming out all the time. Or improvements to the ones you’re already using. Or new ways to use old techniques. These things just constantly compound. Any single tool or concept you decide to invest in by learning will cost time until it’s integrated. I’ve said this before, but – pick your battles. Tools are transient and you might end up investing too much time in something that becomes useless or very easily automated. I remember Anthony Jones sharing a story in his mentorship from the previous term, saying how one of his work friends was worried about his skillset since what he does has now become almost completely automated. Your skill has to be more than using a tool. That’s the easy part and I get stuck in it all the time. Tools are easy to master since you just have to put time in, very little thinking required. Jama’s use of tools is very different. He deconstructs the tool, finds what’s useful, how it could be integrated with other concepts and ultimately simplifies by getting rid of a lot of things. Tim Ferriss has that same approach to learning or improving your results – finding out what to stop doing is just as useful, if not more, than finding out what new things to do. In the case of tools – for me personally, I’ll most likely stop investing in tools at this stage, even with amazing new things coming out and will be drilling down and expanding my foundation. Concepts, ideas, research, these are the more valuable concepts, the irreplaceable, at least for now, skills.

WTF Moment – Why Tools Awesome – After having just written about stopping with my tool learning addiction, I do have to say that the reverse of that coin – absolutely amazing. I literally was standing there with no expression and my jaw open as Jama made a 3D environment out of a flat photo in about 30 seconds. Yes, it wasn’t perfect, but it was all you would need. Textured, with the ability to change your camera, all from a photo. Absolutely awesome. Not to mention all the other tools he introduces, which are just being released, that make characters in seconds again. So yes, absolutely no disputing the power of tools. On the other hand just learning that will get you nowhere. I don’t really have an answer on how to manage this, other than to say that this is what everyone struggles with, so it’s not just you and it’s also ongoing. Technology is transforming literally everything right now, so almost every single person in any field is affected by the same changes. Double down on what’s important, on what will make you stand out, dig your foundation deeply and get all the basics under your belt, learn skills that have utility and are not just theoretical and apply everything. Then once you find something that you can see will integrate into your already established workflow and can 10X your results – then invest the time in learning the tool to a good degree, but it’s still not necessary to be as Ash says – a power user. The days of having to know every single slider and checkbox are over. But the days of managing complexity and always having more than you could ever process in terms of information are definitely in full effect.

Thank you Jama!

Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 7 – Intro to 3D

Learning 3D If I Could Start Over – Going through this lesson and having Maciej confirm some of my own thoughts, this is what I would advise anyone just starting out in 3D to do – pick a single software and go with that. There are 2 types of software in my mind, there probably are proper names for them, but this is how I think about them – box modeling where you’re extruding polygons, pushing vertices around, you’re dealing with less points and more precise locations for these. This type of software also normally has its own lights, cameras, render engine. Examples of these would be Maya, Modo, 3DS Max. Then there are the soft modeling/sculpting packages like Zbrush or 3D Coat (Modo also has a sculpt option). These are normally used for characters, though hard surface is definitely also possible. You’re dealing with tons of points, geometry is more flexible and malleable, you can push things around more, smooth them, it feels looser, less precise and in general more like using clay rather than polygons. These also don’t have very flexible lighting / camera / render systems so I’d use the box model packages for rendering, lighting and composition.

If I were just starting to learn 3D, I’d pick one of each of the categories and just forget about all the other ones. Yes, as Maciej mentions – each software does have its own unique feature, this is very true, but going from package to package will only serve to make you spend more time on tools rather than learning what’s really important – storytelling, designing, etc. Don’t be a master of tools, be a master of concepts and practical execution. And of course, I initially made the mistake of learning too much software. I started with Maya first, going through every single thing I could find, learning things from older tutorials that are now obsolete or much easier and since I always want to know everything – I ended up not figuring out how I could apply everything I was learning to art, rather 3D became an end in itself. I would say that’s a mistake. I could have saved months of time not going in as deep and being so thorough, but lesson learned, at least it taught me about managing complexity, which is why I’m writing this now – I’m hoping to be able to cut through all the confusion for you and leave you with a more realistic approach to learning. Start with just 1 software or 1 software of each type (box model & sculpting), figure out how and why you’d be using it – so for instance you wouldn’t need to learn how to make great geometry and be worried about quads, ngons and the like if you’re only using it for concepting or illustration. Do go deep with the 1 software just so you could work efficiently, but don’t get carried away by the complexity and get lost the billions of rabbit holes that come up all the time. Essentially, as Jingna says in her class – have a north star and know where you’re going and of course this is also the most difficult thing to do, especially if you’re learning on your own and have no idea about what you don’t know and what to do next. I’m hoping that I can help with some of that though 🙂

Thank you Maciej!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 7 – Compositing 3D Renders

Looking for Meaning – It was great, while Ash was doing his self-reflection and analysis, to hear about his thoughts behind the renders he had chosen. Subtle, very easy to miss subtexts are everywhere, ready to be built into your work so you can add layers of meaning to it. Ash’s course, as I’ve mentioned before, has been a great eye opener for me and a return to a more thoughtful, meaningful way of analyzing images. How this man manages to inject meaning into his work and make incredible images from next to nothing in terms of guidance and direction given is insane. There were literally about 5 words in this project’s brief and Ash managed to pull it all together and execute in a very impressive way. These courses are definitely to be studied again and his process of mining for information and injecting subtext into images is incredibly powerful.

What I Would Like To See – Having taken Ash’s course the previous term, for me some of the most powerful content was watching Ash go through his 3D workflow, because this is where I felt he was really in the zone, connecting ideas, making associations, creating meaning, it’s where the creative process was born and where you get to see him create the meaning behind his images. It was great to see the finals in this lesson and have Ash explain his thinking for the completed images, but I would really love to see more of the behind the scenes stuff, not necessarily the nuts and bolts, even though the way he uses the software is also very creative, but being with Ash as he’s going through the workflow, putting things together, generating ideas, getting stuck, finding solutions, bouncing from one thing to the next and discovering new ways of thinking. If there are more classes coming – I would love to see more of Ash’s process of putting his images together and the thinking behind it – getting to see him create his composits in lesson 3 was amazing and also the content from last term of getting to go through the maze of 3D, which there definitely were a lot of examples from this term too – the bump maps on the model’s skin, what the thinking was there, how he arrived at the idea and also just the playing to get to that point, the camera angles, the lighting, the experimentation – it would be amazing to see more of that.

Thank you Ash!



 Intro to Environment Painting – Maciej Kuciara

Week 8 – 3D Environments

Endless Improvement – In the first week we started with the idea of revisiting fundamentals, of improving everything consistently and never calling any skill done. The moment you decide you’ve learned something you close it off from future improvement. Maciej’s emphasis on thinking and his distinction of doing something like a calculator versus spending time to analyze and dive deeply into something is crucial and is something we’ve encountered in the other courses as well this term. Thinking is your greatest asset and your ticket to any improvement. Your skill increase will be directly proportional to the quality of your thought and it’s no wonder that thinking is also the hardest skill to put into practice and we all avoid it, since our brains will do almost anything to conserve energy and get away from metabolically expensive processes… such as thinking. There is no finish line, ever. There is no place to arrive to, there is only improvement, refinement, exploration and synthesis of all these different things into new ideas, it’s an absolutely amazing journey.

Social Intelligence – We’ve seen this in Jingna’s course, Maciej is also commenting on it, definitely a hugely important point. You have to be a team player. You have to be contributing. You have to want to make things better for others and you have to realize it’s not about you. A big reason why I write these notes is so that I can put my monkey mind to sleep, to put the arrogance away and focus on what I can learn, rather than saying things like – “I already knew that”, “That’s not how it’s done” or whatever other random arrogant thought might pop into my brain. We are all susceptible to this. We all have our base impulses that try to subvert us constantly and go for the immediate payoff rather than long term success. The thought of “I already knew that” could be my brain’s way of trying to conserve energy and send me off to some other task that’s less demanding than trying to focus and deconstruct an idea. We all focus on ourselves too much, we all could do with being more humble, we all could be more open to others and to their ideas. Being successful at anything means that you’re contributing to other people’s experiences in a meaningful way, so being a team player, learning to integrate other people’s opinions, getting rid of the bad parts of our egos, learning to listen more – these are all elements that go in the overall framework of mastery. Skill is not enough, it’s only a piece. The big picture is on a much larger scale. Definitely something to study and practice daily. Don’t only practice your art, practice being a better human.

Thank you Maciej! It was awesome, once again, thank you for your insane amount of knowledge and for working so hard for so many years so you can share it with others and make their path easier. Looking forward to the advanced class or really anything you decide to do next. Thank you!


Main Title Design – Ash Thorp

Week 8 – Compositing 3D Renders

Communication – Another fundamental, this is absolutely crucial. Referenced also by Jingna and Maciej, communicating with others directly or through your work, this is essentially what art and design are about. Being able to communicate clearly, understand what is required of you and then execute on a level that shows the client that you are a contributor, a co-creator, not someone that has to be walked through every single step. Having clarity before you start is obviously crucial, since hard work is nothing but a waste of time if it’s aimed in the wrong direction. Also – the way you present your work, whether on a website or in person – it matters. Everything matters. You either take painstaking effort to make everything as good as you possibly can, or you let things slide, which over time amounts to clutter, unusability and slackness. This is not perfectionism, it’s not obsessing over everything to the point where you don’t even start because things aren’t as they should be, it’s making the most out of whatever circumstances you’re in and whatever work you’re presented with, making it a personal standard to execute on a very high level. I definitely have huge room for improvement in this area. How you do one thing is how you do everything. So build those standards and expectations into everything you do, regardless how small. Have a system that you can count on to get a good result and implement it on all tasks. The small things are the big things. These are big areas for me to reflect more on and improve.

Underpromise and Overdeliver – Communication is reinforced by trust. Everyone can talk, but your work is what builds trust. You might be the most convincing and empathetic person in the world – without being able to execute on something though, that’s almost worthless. Being a great teammate, producing work that exceeds any expectation, delivering on time and being reliable – these are universal keys to success. I can’t imagine a setting in which these wouldn’t be valued. And as a consequence – you’ll establish a very strong relationship with your client, since there are few people who can tick all of those boxes. This is where we diverge again purely from skill and we emphasize general character, who you are as a person. It’s reflected just as much in your work as it is in the way you work. Again, very, very difficult things that are developed over time and we could all use more discipline, more clarity and better organization. These are the fundamentals on which skills are built.

Thank you Ash! This was amazing. It was great to see more of the character / business side this time around and to get to know your methods more, which are always incredibly inspiring and make me a lot more thoughtful and willing to invest time and thought into ideas. Thank you for your amazing creativity and great discipline in execution. I look forward to learning a lot more from you. Thank you!


Narrative Concept Art – Jama Jurabaev

Week 8 – Visualizing Your Story

Jama’s Process – Tons of demos from Jama this week, really strong finish to the course. It was great to get to watch him go from start to finish on several pieces and put all of the ideas from the course into practice. After having seen Ash, Maciej and Jingna go through their projects, I’m happy to say that Jama shares the same principles to a large extent. Being prepared, doing your research, focusing on the big picture solutions first, starting simple and then building on top of a good foundation, Jama uses all of these principles as well – enhanced, as we’ve been covering for the entire course, by an incredibly fast workflow and keeping things as simple as possible to focus on the story. Photobashing merely for the sake of getting a happy accident and being lucky, while trying to avoid learning the fundamentals – sorry, not a good strategy.

Some People Will Always Complain – A good takeaway from this week’s lesson – regardless of how you work, what your tools are, what your policy is on using reference or photobashing – some people will always complain. They will ask you weird questions and they will discard your work because you’ve done it “like this” or “like that”… It doesn’t matter what you do – these people will always find you and they’ll have something against whatever it is you’re doing. Happens to everyone. Don’t sweat it. Just do what’s most important for you, focus on solving problems and building your foundation. A lot of times people use those implicit rules they’ve created for themselves as excuses not to have to try. Sad but true. Help them if you can, but many are just not open to input.

Keeping Storytelling Simple – Another great takeaway from Jama and a super simple rule to implement – have a twist to your story. Juxtapose elements, create a conflict or a surprise, have something that will make the viewer ask “What’s next?” and want to find out more. Making pretty pictures, as all instructors have described, is not enough, your ideas matter and is what engages people long after the effect of a stunning image has worn off.

Thank you Jama! This was another term filled with amazing, completely unique techniques. Thank you so much for all of your research and crazy experiments that lead you to finding all of these great new ways of working and thank you for sharing your vast knowledge! Thank you for having gone through your difficult journey, thank you for not giving up and thank you for now helping others get better. Thank you!


Artistic Portrait Photography – Jingna Zhang

Week 8 – Marketing Your Work

Update Your Portfolio NOW – This is so incredibly true. When you finish a piece – add it to your portfolio now. Don’t wait, you’ll lose the emotional momentum and you’ll end up with a pile of work that’s never gone up. I’m absolutely guilty of this. Very solid piece of advice and great psychological insight as always from Jingna.

Focus on Quality – We’ve covered focusing on producing quality work before, this should become an overarching principle for everything you do. Same as the note for having high standards from Ash’s class, you have to not only create work of very high quality, you have to present it in a way that is respectful to the work. Another area for me to improve. I tend to devalue work as I see it as studying, but if you don’t respect your work and present it in a suitable way – you can be sure no one else will respect it either. The flip side of that – you have to be respectful of people’s time and don’t force anyone to scroll through individual images, regardless of how awesome you may think they are, let people pick their own interest on your website. Have a simple platform, with quality work. Discard images that no longer fit with your current skill level, regardless of how attached you may be to them.

Be Genuine & Be Strategic – These two ideas may seem like they’re opposed to each other, but they can work very powerfully together. I think Jingna’s work exemplifies these qualities to a great degree, after having gone through the course and having had the privilege to see what’s behind the work – Jingna comes across as a very genuine, thoughtful, highly skilled person. She is also very strategic. The way in which she presents her work, the skills she’s chosen to master, her willingness to show her work and put it out there. This translates over to how Jingna approaches her actual photographic work – the emphasis on preparation, considering contingencies and the methodical way of execution, not to mention the discipline involved to have developed all of these systems – these are all strategically chosen components coupled with a powerful, genuine personal vision. Jingna has on numerous occasions throughout the course emphasized the importance of finding what you want to do, not to just try and tailor your work to what you think someone else might want to see. Very powerful ideas coming from a great artist, an incredible professional and a genuine, caring human being. Awesome combination.

Thank you Jingna! It’s been an absolute privilege to be able to see how you create. Not only your work, but your work ethic, your ethos and your personality are incredibly inspiring. I’ve made so many adjustments based on what you’ve shared and I will keep refining my process until I internalize at least a small portion of the effort and quality that you infuse all your work with. Thank you!    



  1. George says:

    Great stuff, thank you for sharing your journey with these courses. Not sure if you mentioned it, but which version of the courses were you taking? basic, learn squared or Professional?

    • Volen says:

      Hey George, answered your comment on FB, but copying here for others too – I took all basic, then upgraded 2 of the classes to squared. Lots of good stuff in the squared, since you get access to the mentorship, so it’s 2+ hours of feedback and going in deep on more subjects. Definitely worth it.

  2. […] “. . . incredibly inspiring. I’ve made so many adjustments based on what you’ve shared and I will keep refining my process until I internalize at least a small portion of the effort and quality that you infuse all your work with. Thank you!” – Volen CK, Learn Squared Term 2 – Big Notes and Insights […]

  3. Thank you. Really appreciate your thinking and analysis of the artist’s journey. Your insights are really on point.

  4. pratik says:

    Hey Volen, I cannot describe how helpful these blogs and articles have been, I have em saved and read them whenever i come across something i can’t wrap my head around. Quarantine has got me to study Jama’s narrative concept art (which i have been waiting to take for the longest time).I have even picked several bits from your blogs for my college papers. I wanted to put this out there-THANK YOU for taking the time and effort for doing what you did. Hope you are doing well.

    • Volen CK says:

      That’s amazing – thank you so much Pratik, it’s so great to know that my work is helpful to people. Enjoy the extended study time 😉 Thank you again!

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